Claude A Debussy

(1862 - 1918)


Claude Debussy exercised widespread influence over later generations of composers, both in his native France and elsewhere. He was trained at the Paris Conservatoire, and decided there on a career as a composer rather than as a pianist, his original intention. His highly characteristic musical language, thoroughly French in inspiration, extended the contemporary limits of harmony and form, with a remarkably delicate command of nuance, whether in piano-writing or in the handling of a relatively large orchestra.

Debussy attempted many operas, two based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe. But he completed only one, Pellas et Mlisande, a version of the medieval play by Maurice Maeterlinck, with its story of idealised love perfectly matched with the composer's musical idiom.

The most influential piece of orchestral music by Debussy is the Prlude l'aprs-midi d'un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun), based on a poem by Mallarm. This was later used for a ballet, with choreography by Nijinsky, who created a considerable scandal at the first performance. The music evokes a pagan world, as the faun of the title takes his ease in the afternoon shade on a summer day. The three symphonic sketches that constitute La mer (The Sea), published with a famous woodcut known as The Wave, from the Japanese artist Hokusai's views of Mount Fuji, an indication of oriental influence on Debussy, offer evocations of the sea from dawn to midday, of the waves and of the dialogue of wind and sea. Other orchestral works by Debussy include the three movements of Nocturnes for orchestra - 'Nuages' (Clouds), 'Ftes' (Festivals) and 'Sirnes'. Images, a work in three movements completed in 1912, includes 'Gigues', 'Ibria' and 'Ronde de printemps', the last a celebration of spring. His Le martyre de Saint Sbastien, finally scored by Andr Caplet, was in origin a theatrical and choreographic collaboration with the poet Gabriele d'Annunzio. Debussy sketched out orchestration for his Rapsodie arabe for saxophone and piano, completed after his death by Roger-Ducasse, an interesting addition to the repertoire of an instrument more often neglected by classical composers.

Debussy's chamber music includes a fine string quartet, known as the first, although the second, like so much of the composer's work, existed only as a future project. Syrinx, for unaccompanied flute, in which the pagan god Pan plays his flute, was originally written as incidental music for the theatre. Towards the end of his life Debussy planned a series of six chamber works, patriotically announced as by Claude Debussy, musicien franais. He completed three of these projected works, a violin sonata, a cello sonata and a sonata for flute, viola and harp.

Debussy made a significant addition to the French song repertoire, capturing the spirit, in particular, of the work of poets like Verlaine and Mallarm, but also turning to earlier poets, including Villon and Charles d'Orlans. His Chansons de Bilitis, settings of verses by Pierre Lous, turn again to the pagan world, while the settings of the Verlaine Ftes galantes, including 'Clair de lune', capture the nostalgia of the poems, yearning for an unattainable past.

In his writing for the piano, Debussy proved himself a successor to Chopin, who had died in Paris thirteen years before Debussy's birth. His own debt to Chopin was overtly expressed in his two books of tudes (Studies), completed in 1915. The two Arabesques, early works, enjoy continued popularity, as does the Suite bergamasque, with its all-too-popular 'Clair de lune'. Estampes (Prints) evokes the Far East in 'Pagodes', Spain in 'La soire dans Grenade' (Evening in Granada), and autumnal sadness in 'Jardins sous la pluie' (Gardens under the Rain), while L'isle joyeuse turns to Watteau for inspiration. Two sets of Images offer further delicate pictures, while the two books of Prludes offer still more varied images, from 'La fille aux cheveux de lin' (The Girl with Flaxen Hair) and 'La cathdrale engloutie' (The Submerged Cathedral) to the final 'Feux d'artifice' (Fireworks). The single La plus que lente (More than slow) of 1910 and the light-hearted Children's Corner Suite form a further part of a larger series of works.

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